When Cesar Reigned

An aging journalist remembers 1999, when an election became a revolution, and the city changed forever

As the mayor continued speaking, the dome fell. It was as if all the patronage, all the payoffs, the inside construction deals, and the sweetheart contracts, had incrementally added to the molecular weight of the gold on the dome until it became so heavy even acres of Italianate marble could not hold it up.

Also on that day, we don't know when, the Vengeful Ex-Mayor walked into an open manhole. Nobody realized this until much later, when his body was recovered and an autopsy revealed a liver engorged with bile.

Pandemonium ensued in the moments following the Collapse of the Dome. Even those who knew nothing of it ran out into the streets and began yelling, without comprehending exactly why. A strange sense of tragedy -- and liberation -- filled the air. One student brazenly placed himself in front of a Muni bus, defying the all-powerful transit agency.

Amid the bedlam, Cesar Ascarrunz, with the strong-armed help of his co-conspirators, scaled the side of a Market Street trolley and raised his arms.

"Soy leon," he cried. "I am a lion."

"Ce - Tsar! Ce - Tsar! Ce - Tsar!" the crowd replied.

And so, as everybody knows, the Junta came to power.

As often happens at historical crossroads such as these, a man possessed of sufficient charisma, vision, and courage can chart the course of history. In this city, at that time, that man was Cesar Ascarrunz.

Before the day of the Occurrences, Cesar was among a tiny band of revolutionaries who had been maneuvering unseen in the hills and valleys of the city, making plans, preparing for the fateful Election Day. These members of the Revolutionary Forgotten Candidates Front or Frente Revolucionario de Candidatos Olvidados were popularly known by the acronym FRCO, pronounced "Freako."

Virtually invisible and with no hope of success, these Freakos spoke individually to grammar school classrooms. They argued with each other at debates no one attended. Among the Freakos, it was Cesar who had the leader's soul, the sort of charisma that made his company impossible to resist. "Olia de naftalina," Cesar warmly noted after chatting with the incumbent mayor at a debate in Golden Gate Park. "His suit smelled of mothballs."

During conversation, Cesar was known for accentuating points about his personal background -- or his plans to have the National Guard patrol the streets -- by gently and repeatedly touching the hand and garments of an interviewer. He was a man who relentlessly flagged down attractive women, earnestly telling them about his candidacy in a manner possessed of such grace that at least one female office worker cut a Cesar campaign flier into the shape of a heart and hung it on her computer.

"My agenda is to take care of all the people," Cesar said.

And the women understood.

A native of Bolivia, Cesar had come to the Bay Area in 1960, and attended UC Berkeley and the University of San Francisco. A master of seven tongues, he became a nightclub mogul, at one point running eight clubs. He was famous for his weekday and Sunday benefit events, which became a financial mainstay for every sort of San Francisco charity. Cesar's Latin Palace, a cavernous dance hall decorated with glitter balls and neon signs, was the most famous of the salsa clubs.

"It was really nice," recalled one Mission barfly. "It was the only place you could get drinks after hours." For this bit of benevolence, Cesar's liquor license was yanked several times, and the police once tried to shut him down. Like any good revolutionary, he beat the rap.

But in 1997, Cesar decided to retire, taking the $2.5 million he got for selling his club and dedicating himself to his first love, running for mayor. In 1999, he launched his third, and final, such bid.

In a pueblo known for dissembling double-think, Cesar proved refreshingly frank, and bracingly well-informed. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel," he would say, motioning toward the broad expanse of expired industrial land that then spread across the city's southwest end. "When the population is increasing, what do you do with a specific space? You have to have buildings at 10 stories. We could have a beautiful Riviera here, like in Brazil."

As for transport, "limit traffic downtown," Cesar said, unknowingly repeating the mantra of New Urbanism theorists worldwide. He was, historians later agreed, a natural. During his reign, he would go on to divide and conquer the tangle of neighborhood interests that had kept the city small.

"I am a strong person. I am a lion," he explained. "These organizations are politically motivated. They don't care about the lives of other people. They just want to jack up prices on their homes. The mayor has to tie his pants and say, 'Am I going to make thousands of people happy, or 300 people happy?'"

Cesar would not waste money on $600 million City Hall renovations, instead building a giant, downtown concert hall, with proceeds going to worthy charities.

"It would be a giant Palladium," Cesar said. "Thousands of people would come."

On the morning of the revolution, everyone felt the magical electricity. But only Cesar Ascarrunz understood its meaning.

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